The surprising thing about Father of the Year, Adam Sandler production company Happy Madison’s fifth collaboration with Netflix, isn’t that it’s bad. Each of the previous four offerings (The Week Of, The Ridiculous Six, The Do-Over,and Sandy Wexler) have been bad to differing extents.
The surprising thing about Father of the Year is that parts of it are perfectly, inoffensively charming. And they’re the parts that try to minimize the two most well known, most traditionally Happy Madison faces on screen as much possible.
David Spade and Nat Faxon star as New Hampshire doofuses Wayne and Mardy. Wayne is a ne’er-do-well with Joe Dirt hair, no job, and a pool that he’s crafted in the bed of his neighbor’s truck. Mardy is a scientist working on some sort of nipple cream, and is constantly belittled at home by his beautiful wife and terrible stepson.
Wayne and Mardy’s respective kids, Ben (Joey Bragg) and Larry (Matt Shively) return home to New England after their last year at college. Ben has graduated cum laude (and you best believe Wayne can’t pronounce that) and is prepared to head off to New York for his dream job in the environmental industry. Larry has no aspirations other than making out with lots of college-aged New Hampshire ladies.
One night while out at a local bar, Ben and Larry get into a discussion about their disappointing fathers. That discussion eventually morphs into the old age question: whose dad can beat up the other? Ben lets slip of the conversation to Wayne, who takes it a little too seriously and before anyone can stop it, Wayne v. Mardy is on.
Father of the Year was originally set to be titled Who Do You Think Would Win? which honestly may have made it 3% better of a film. The initial “who do you think would win” conversation between Ben and Larry is so random and unexpected that it could only be deemed plausible by pawning it off on the audience. You guys remember those grade school conversations, right? At least the awful and unbearable among us do.
Perhaps Netflix requested a title change because Father of the Year really isn’t about a fight between two dads. The entire concept of the film is all but ignored saved for a handful of scenes. For the most part Mardy and Wayne don’t obsess over their threatened masculinity. They don’t train, they don’t talk about it, and they barely interact with each other. It’s as if the movie is ashamed of its own premise.
It’s a curious decision because Father of the Year’s closest thing to “stars” are the two fathers. David Spade has never been a big box office draw but he can be a likable enough presence onscreen even to those who find him unlikeable. Nat Faxon is even less known but he’s a capable comedic performer and he’s got an Oscar. Never forget Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s Oscar. I know I won’t.
Father of the Year does everything it can to marginalize them though. Spade is thrown under a wig and forced to adopt a New England accent that is surely among the least plausible committed to film. Spade was born in Massachusetts but spent most of his youth in Arizona and it’s clear that the Masshole accent didn’t make the trip out to the desert. Faxon is merely asked to fill out a stock Happy Madison archetype best described as “well-meaning cuckboi.”
Instead of the fathers, the movies focuses on the sons and it makes for a much more even and consistent experience. Bragg and Shively seem unlikely to be bound for superstardom but are clearly capable comedic actors. Their Ben and Larry are absolute base-level movie characters – the prodigal and very much not prodigal sons returned – but the actors are able to make them feel lived-in and believable at times, even when the film is neither lived-in nor believable.
Ben and Larry’s last few weeks spent at home before they’re forced to choose a forever-career is a relatable, almost universal experience that hundreds of teen rom-coms have taken advantage of. Here it seems generally effective just because it’s contrasted with the upcoming fight between two adult garbage idiots.
Any of the movie’s good humor is drawn from the two young leads. There are some occasional laughs derived from their dialogue and physical gags aplenty, many of which don’t land. Though a weird subplot involving a local friend joining a biker gang, not realizing it will likely be a very racist experience is undoubtedly funny but under utilized.
Father of the Year is really a mediocre coming-of-age film trapped in an absurdist, bad comedic premise. Ben falling for childhood love interest Meredith (Bridgit Mendler) and wanting to spend more time with her even as he knows he’s bound for New York is handled about as conventionally as possible. But it feels downright revolutionary when we know the alternative is that Wayne and Mardy will get screen time.
That’s what Father of the Year does differently than any recent Happy Madison film. It accidentally argues for the obsolescence of its own brand of filmmaking. Without meaning to do so it reveals that even the most basic teenage romantic plot carried out by likable people is more watchable than whatever adult actors in wigs freaks how they wanted to do in the first place.